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October 1, 2014

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Hank Greenspun: ‘Unbelievable’ as fiction, but a true life story

Documentary spans colorful career of Las Vegas Sun founder

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PUBLICITY PHOTO

Hank Greenspun, shown in an undated photo in the documentary “Where I Stand,” is portrayed as an observer of, participant in or cause of some major events of the 20th century.

"Where I Stand" director dissects film

Scott Goldstein, director of the documentary "Where I Stand," visits with Vegas 1 host Jeff Gillan to talk about his movie that depicts the extraordinary life of Las Vegas Sun founder Hank Greenspun.

Click to enlarge photo

"Where I Stand," a documentary about the life of former Sun Publisher and Editor Hank Greenspun, will premier June 16 at the Brenden Theatres at the Palms as part of CineVegas 2008.

IF YOU GO

What: “Where I Stand” will be screened as part of the CineVegas Film Festival, which runs Thursday through June 21 at various Las Vegas venues.

When: 6 p.m. June 16 and 1 p.m. June 18

Where: Brenden Theatres, the Palms

Admission: $10; $9 for students and seniors. Festival passes are also available, from $100 to $600; 992-7979, www.cinevegas.com

Hank Greenspun could have been a movie star. A charismatic tough guy, the Brooklyn kid who became a Las Vegas titan had the looks and the moxie and the derring-do, as they used to say. Years ago, Paul Newman talked about playing Greenspun on the big screen. Of today’s actors, perhaps only Alec Baldwin has the heft for the part.

It’s hard to believe no one has made a movie about him before now: “Where I Stand,” a documentary about Greenspun, the controversial, crusading editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, will have its world premiere at this week’s 10th CineVegas film festival.

Calling it a documentary doesn’t do it justice. Moments after the opening credits roll, it turns into an adventure yarn that could give Indiana Jones a run for his money. Constantly surprising, it rips through escapades and indictments, disasters and triumphs, set against a backdrop of Vegas in its infancy, organized crime, nuclear testing, desegregation, Watergate, peace negotiations, Green Valley and Yucca Mountain. The cast includes gangsters and movie stars, sons and daughters. Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Howard Hughes. Richard Nixon. Joe McCarthy. Shimon Peres. Kirk Kerkorian. Steve Wynn. Rose Marie.

In “Where I Stand,” Greenspun emerges as a “Zelig”-like figure — in Woody Allen’s 1983 film, Zelig is a nebbish who shows up in the background at every major event of the 20th century.

The difference is that Greenspun was a dynamic man who actually did enter some of the most seminal events in history.

“Or caused them,” says his son, Brian Greenspun, laughing.

“The Hank Greenspun story would be unbelievable as fiction,” says Scott Goldstein, who directed the film. “Here’s a guy who is recruited to run arms (to Israel after it became an independent nation) and becomes the largest arms runner, though he had no intention of doing it,” Goldstein says. “The guy is one of the first to publicly confront McCarthy and have the guts to do that before the trials. The guy works deals with Howard Hughes. He goes on and brokers an agreement to end discrimination on the Strip. The guy doesn’t like what’s going on in the world, so what does he do? He starts his own peace process in the ’80s.

“In the film,” Goldstein says, “we hear Hank say, ‘I needed to get a guy with Saudi connections. I had to look no further than the baccarat table at the Sands.’ Quick cut to Adnan Khashoggi. I’ve shown this to some people, who say ‘You’re making this (stuff) up!’ ”

“When (Hank Greenspun) wrote his book (also called “Where I Stand”) in the ’60s, I remember some said it was ‘a real life James Bond,’ ” says Brian Greenspun, now editor of the paper his father founded in 1950. “That’s how Hank’s life was. It was one episode, one surprise, one adventure after another. There was no cohesiveness to the adventures, they were so disparate. But there clearly was a theme. As they say in the movie — and I love this — ‘he bent the law to follow the straight law of justice.’

“As a family, we always knew that there was a story there. Ten years prior to this, we actually hired some screenwriters and talked to a lot of the big movie companies. We wanted to do a movie about his life. We kept being sent away with ‘Which story do you want told?’ As naive as we were, our answer was, well, we want his life story told. And they said, for the movies, you’ve got to pick one of these. Do you want Israel, do you want McCarthy, do you want (former U.S. Sen. Patrick) McCarran, do you want Watergate? Which one do you want? And we could never separate our father’s life that way.”

After deciding on a documentary approach, executive producer Amy Greenspun (Brian’s daughter and Hank’s granddaughter) brought in Goldstein, whose credits as a writer, producer and director include “L.A. Law,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “The Today Show.” He also created many of the core multimedia exhibits for the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the New York Tolerance Center.

“The thing that intrigued us about Scott was that he came from a television drama background, so he had that moviemaking flair that you needed for television,” Brian Greenspun says. “Which was completely opposite of what you think about when you think of documentaries. It’s a mixture, it’s a dramatization of real life with the art of television or theater, but there’s nothing fake in it.”

In his career as a journalist, which continued until his death from cancer in 1989, Greenspun often crossed the line between newsman and newsmaker. He used the outspoken clout of his newspaper and his column, “Where I Stand,” to further his purposes, from repudiating Joe McCarthy (who labeled Greenspun “a creature who crawl(ed) from under a rock in New York ... the voice of the Reds in Vegas”) to cleaning up a mobbed-up city, ending segregation on the Strip, and protesting the dumping of nuclear waste in Nevada.

Greenspun’s response to his many critics: “I could care less — Las Vegas was now a better place.”

Happily for Goldstein and his documentary crew, Hank Greenspun lived a well-documented life, leaving columns, news stories and books, filmed appearances, newsreels, photographs and home movies. In the process of doing the legwork of interviewing Greenspun’s contemporaries, Goldstein happened on some unexpected treasures, film footage, documents, diaries and letters that no one in the Greenspun family knew existed.

Still, the director was confronted by a mountain of still photos and words and talking heads. Goldstein applied some cinematic dazzle, taking a stylish, stylized approach to the material, animating still photographs (“the Ken Burns effect”), and burnishing the atmosphere with narration by Anthony Hopkins, well-chosen period songs and an original score by Elik Alvarez and Freddy Sheinfeld, performed by 60 members of the Seattle Philharmonic.

“I wanted to serve this guy in a film as big and as gregarious as he was,” Goldstein says. “I don’t particularly like passive documentaries — the ‘voice of God’ narrator telling you ‘he did this, and then such and such happened.’ I wanted that present tense sense of discovery— you don’t know what’s going to happen with the arms-running, you don’t know what’s going to happen with McCarthy, you don’t know if he’s going to go broke from the fire.”

The finished film holds surprises, even for the “Vegas older-timers,” as Goldstein puts it, who knew Greenspun well.

“Most people who knew my dad knew portions of my dad, but they didn’t know all of it,” Brian Greenspun says. “Because he didn’t talk about it. He just did it.

“Certainly folks who were here in the early ’50s knew the McCarthy and McCarran portions. Others who followed certainly knew the Israeli portions. Nobody knew the Sadat peacemaking story. And very, very few knew the extent of the Watergate story. Even I never knew the (audio) tapes existed relating to my dad and Richard Nixon.”

Now that “Where I Stand” is about to face an audience — a hometown audience — for the first time, Goldstein hopes “somebody’s going to say we’re putting this on the big screen. I would not be surprised if when people see this, they think it’s unbelievable, this has ‘feature’ written all over it, and that somebody will in fact visit this story as a feature. He also wouldn’t mind hearing that Steve Wynn is looking for someone to film his life story.

For the Greenspuns, it wasn’t about making a movie, it was about putting a legacy on film, for the grandchildren and their children.

It grew into something significantly more.

“We realized we had a story here of a modern day hero,” Brian Greenspun says. “This country’s very fearful, especially now. You look at this documentary, and go back to the days of McCarthy, and it’s not a whole lot different. We’re afraid for different reasons now. But there were tinges of McCarthyism in the last five, six, seven years, where people were afraid to open their mouths, were afraid to act for fear of being called unpatriotic. Now there’s an economic fear on top of everything else.

“Whatever your circumstances are that create a fear, you can watch a documentary like this and realize the biggest fear is not doing anything. It’s the fear of action.”